In 1969 I wrote a short monograph on Frank Stella. It was easy enough to begin the text with an enthusiastic, full-scale treatment of the black-stripe paintings of 1959, works by a twenty-three-year-old that still loom large as watershed masterpieces of twentieth-century art. But it was not so easy to end my text, which had to stop short after only a little more than a decade of Stella's work. Hanging in midair, I resorted to a rhetorical flourish and claimed that we could "look ahead confidently to as much, even more, from the Stella of future decades as we have had from the Stella of the 1960s." The truth was that I didn't believe this. I felt that to leave him dangling in 1969, a time when his work looked solid but unchallenging, was in effect to wrap up and put to rest a brilliant, decade-long career in which a genius entered art history and changed its course drastically with a long run of great paintings in a short run of vintage years, after which he became increasingly irrelevant. There had been ample precedent for this relentless, almost Darwinian pattern in the heroic generation preceding Stella's. For our art-historical time capsules, wouldn't just three or four critical years of, say, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, or Still give us not only the major glories of their art but also the exact point at which they left their huge imprints on history? Following this cruel yet demonstrable logic, it was not hard to think in 1969 that, final diplomatic sentences aside, Stella belonged more to the past than the future.
To my continued amazement, my instinct turned out to be wrong and my hollowly sanguine prophecy to be right. For after 1969 Stella's work accelerated so rapidly in invention that beginning in 1976 with the Exotic Bird series (fig . 113), every new show provoked the same kind of jaw-dropping response demanded by those first black-stripe paintings of 1959. Once more it looked as if a totally fresh, youthful artist had appeared, almost from nowhere, to confront us with numbingly unfamiliar experiences that we could not blink away. Furthermore, the new work seemed entirely to negate the monkish austerity and renunciation with which Stella had entered the art scene in 1959. He started as a young Savonarola who banished from the vocabulary of painting everything suggestive of pleasure, freedom, and impulse, leaving us only with a bare skeleton, immobilized in rectilinear patterns of noncolors (black, aluminum, copper). But now he pushed to the opposite extreme, assaulting us with an overwhelming glut of every color in the plastic rainbow, with hard-edged arabesques of decorative curves and serpentine circuits, with every imaginable ragged doodle and scribble in an alphabet of reckless graffiti. Even more, he steered painting and sculpture into a